So you want to be an editor. OK. Here are two little exercises (both drawn from recent events at U.S. 1) to test your editorial decision-making style and to see if you have the patience to put yourself between the printing press and the public.
Case No. 1: Five or six years ago you printed a story about a U.S. 1 area company and its CEO, in which you referenced the CEO’s family and children. The story at the time was well received by all involved, but recently a stalker approached the CEO’s child and — referencing material found within the story and now archived at www.princetoninfo.com — attempted to “con” the child.
The CEO, noting that the presence of the information now makes the child feel threatened, has politely requested that you remove the story from the Internet. What should you do?
A. Remove the story at once from the electronic archives.
B. Discuss with the CEO the possibility of altering the story to remove the parts of the story that reference the child, or alter the story to disguise the circumstances involving the child.
C. Decline to change the article, but offer to use the incident as an example of how young people (and others) should beware of Information Age hucksters.
Case No. 2: A reader has submitted a first-person article about a trying ordeal she is experiencing. You have just spent an hour or so editing the article, writing a headline and pullquote, and then making it fit precisely in the available space.
At that point, just two hours before your deadline, the writer calls and asks to withdraw the submission. The subject will bring attention that the writer at the moment just doesn’t have the strength to face. What should you do?
A. Tell the writer the deadline has passed and it’s too late.
B. Offer to print the article but use a pseudonym.
C. Agree to pull the story, but invite the writer to alert you if she has a change of heart — even if the change comes within the next hour or so.
There are no correct or incorrect answers in either of these cases, only choices that will cost you — the editor — more or less aggravation. Here’s how it played out for me.
Case No. 1. I chose C — keep the story as it is on the Internet. Having been down this slippery slope many times before, and believing that rewriting history is not as simple as it appears, I offered the concerned CEO the following explanation:
“First it seems to me that, in your case, the retraction of the information is coming too late. Someone has already accessed the information, others may also have it, and all of them can use it for whatever nefarious purpose they want. Moreover, by us removing it from our server, it does not mean that it is removed from the Internet — in fact stories like this are ‘cached’ all over the place.
“Second, if we take your information away then we are saying that personal information posted online (no matter how innocent, as it was in your case) is potentially dangerous. We would be negligent then to post any information online. And in the interest of safety we should abandon our online archives ASAP. (I obviously do not believe that online information is inherently dangerous — in fact this is the first time I have heard of anyone using information from one of our articles to hassle a child.)
“Finally, after the bad guys have ruined the archiving system that we have worked so hard to create, I’m not sure the world would be any safer. You could tell your child that the personal details were no longer online. But the child could still be confronted by some slick con artist who has all sorts of personal data — for example some clever guy who read the story at the library.
“Better, I think, to spend our time educating young people on the dangers of strangers (and even more prevalent the casual acquaintances and relatives) trying to take advantage. I’m open to learning from this.”
That wasn’t the choice the CEO was looking for.
His reply: “I can see no advantage to anyone for this information to remain. It was a simple request that injured no one but left my child feeling exposed.
“I will add that my wife is insulted by your comment that implies we haven’t taken the time to explain the dangers of strangers or casual acquaintances to our children. We certainly never would have granted the interview if we thought for a second that information from it would be used in this regard or any other. Furthermore, to use it as an opportunity to further your paper is even more distasteful.”
Case No. 2. I chose answer C and immediately got to work, formatting another first-person op ed piece I had in the wings, knowing that the original one would still be good to go the next week or the next month for that matter.
Within an hour the writer had re-thought her position and asked that the story run as originally planned. I moved the replacement story off to the side, replaced it with the original, and sent the page off to the printer. The piece ran in the November 24 issue and was soon archived online (of course!), and has already received two appreciative comments from readers who find themselves in a similar bind.
Those of you who still want to be an editor should note: On the aggravation scale mentioned above I batted .500 — that’s not bad in this business.